If you’re anything like me, Thailand is attractive to you because of its notorious friendliness, rich culture, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. If you’re also like me, these wonders seem to be overshadowed in the wake of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s passing. However, you are probably unlike me in the timeliness of your desire to travel here; the King died 13 days before I was set to leave.
Luckily for you, the current situation is much more at bay than it was when I left the USA. Not that it was ever chaotic to begin with, but there was definitely a big uncertainty as to what would happen. So, if there is anything I ask you to take away from this blog post, it’s to not be deterred from coming to teach in Thailand. The precautions you should take as a foreigner are much easier than you might imagine; take it from someone who has been living and traveling all over the country for a month.
The following three tips stem from a concept that you should already be abiding by in a foreign land: respect. While I want to stress that current affairs in Thailand are probably nowhere near as dramatic as you may be thinking, we are also talking about potentially the biggest thing that has happened to this country in a century. And it’s very sad.
If you’re upset about President Obama leaving the White House after eight years, imagine what it must be like to see a beloved ruler pass away after 70 years in power. Have empathy. And more importantly, have respect.
This one comes first because aside from being very disrespectful, it can also get you into serious legal trouble. I won’t go into detail about the technicalities of this law, but it essentially means “don’t speak poorly about the Royal Family”. Not only is this taken very seriously by Thai people, but it also wields a hefty punishment (up to 15 years in prison for each count).
As a foreigner, I would encourage you to refrain from speaking about Thai politics altogether, just to avoid testing a very sensitive subject. It’s not illegal for you to do so, and while asking questions about the Royal Family is a great way to learn about the culture, remember to be sensitive and respectful to avoid saying something offensive by accident.
It’s pretty straightforward: don’t talk smack about the King.
When scrolling through the Greenheart Travel Teach in Thailand Facebook page, I think the questions I see get asked the most have to do with the mourning dress code. I’ll do my best to cover all the bases.
In terms of street clothes, just about anything goes. Especially in the bigger cities. I’ve seen foreigners rocking short shorts and crop tops, colorful elephant pants, backless dresses – you name it. Thailand is hot, so I can’t blame anyone for wanting to show some skin. And the rumor that bright colors are forbidden is a myth. However, keep in mind that it’s probably the best way to make yourself a conspicuous tourist. Dark, modest clothes are ideal for showing your solidarity with the Thai people.
However, if you must dress for the heat and humidity, you can wear one of the abundantly-found black ribbons on your left shoulder or chest to advertise your recognition of the mourning period. This can also be used when wearing the color red (the rebel color) to make it known that you observe the proper custom.
You should also know that as a woman, you are prohibited from entering a temple unless your shoulders and knees are covered. Monks are celibate and the belief is that the even the sight of a woman’s flesh is enough to lustfully tempt them out of monkhood.
This is really only the case on temple grounds, which are considered highly sacred (so if you see a monk on the street, don’t worry about how you’re dressed). You’re not at the risk of getting arrested or anything; the worst that can happen is you’ll get kicked out of the temple. So, if you plan on going to the various famous “wats” scattered around Thailand (which, I highly recommend you do), either bring a change of clothes or dress accordingly.
In terms of your school, I have the same answer for you that I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing: it depends. In government schools, you can pretty much bet on there being an all-black, if not greyscale, dress code. My school, for example, limits me to wearing black, white, or grey for the mourning period. However, some private schools may have different rules or even provide you with a uniform.
Regardless, pack and wear dark, modest clothes, especially for work. You can always buy them for cheap here as well. But, don’t feel limited to this wardrobe on the street if it doesn’t suit you.
If you had to go into a stranger’s house, you would probably be quite uncertain about how to act in their home. Should you take your shoes off? Can you put your feet up on the coffee table? All these questions could be answered if you knew the person, right? The same goes for entering another country. Familiarize yourself with Thai customs so that you know how to be polite.
One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced happened when I was walking through a market one night. The surrounding loudspeakers were blaring Thai advertisements and some soft music, when suddenly there was a short pause and a song came on. Every single Thai in the market rose, hands at their sides, and stood there silently for the duration of the song.
Social pressure compelled me to do the same, although I had no idea what was going on. I watched as some of the other foreigners around me giggled and took pictures; Thais eyed them resentfully. After it was over, everyone snapped back into action as if nothing had ever happened. I learned later that I had witnessed a standard national anthem.
The point of this story is to show you that I respected and observed a Thai custom. Although I am not Thai, I stood for their national anthem. Unknowingly then, I was showing them that I respected their culture and was putting in an effort to assimilate. Nothing happened to the foreigners who disrespected the national anthem (other than a few dirty looks), but they certainly made themselves stand apart. This is especially important right now, since these are touchy times.
Bottom line: if you have good head on your shoulders, I highly doubt you’ll run into any problems here. Thailand is still the bright, colorful, and friendly place you’ve been hearing about. It is not politically unstable, especially since the initial 30-day mourning period is over. People are still very sad and you should still be empathetic and respectful, but life continues here. If you follow my steps, you’ll be as golden as the Doi Suthep temple.
Do you have any questions about how to prepare for teaching in Thailand? Comment below or check out our Teach in Thailand Facebook page!
About the author:
Tavish Petty recently graduated from Portland State (her home town) with a pre-education social science degree. She’s passionate about traveling and education, and this experience enables her to put the two together. Her favorite part about traveling is trying new food and seeing beautiful places!